Thursday, August 2, 2012

Making the Most of Your First Grading Period

There is something about the first of every school year that has always frustrated me.  It seems to me that the first two or three weeks that we spend reviewing topics from previous years is such a waste of time.  Students either enter Algebra I with a good foundation on things like integer operations, distributive property, collecting like terms or they don't.  Two or three weeks of reviewing these topics seems to do nothing for those who are lacking these skills and only seems to bore the rest of the students. 

Last summer, I heard a fantastic speaker at CAMT (Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching) and she challenged us to begin our year differently.   She talked about how many students will give their maximum effort in the first grading period of the year, yet we waste this prime learning time teaching old material.  She urged us to make the most of this maximum effort that most students bring to a new school year by beginning the year with challenging material and fill in any gaps as we went.

When I came back to my campus and said I wanted to skip our "Algebra Foundations" unit also known as Chapter One in your textbook, most the teachers were very opposed to the  idea.  It took a little convincing, but we finally decided to begin the year with the topic of functions.  We jumped right in to rich mathematics and never looked back.

Challenging the students with new material from the first week of school on seemed to help with the complacency that some students seem to experience when presented with material they have already mastered.  I want them to get the idea early in the year that they will need to put forth effort in order to be successful. 

So how did this new approach affect the struggling learners?  Surprisingly, most of the students were able to fill in their gaps as we went.  After an entire year of solving linear equations, inequalities, and systems etc, they became quite proficient in the areas they were weak in when they entered algebra I.   I admit, they are probably still behind their peers when it comes to being prepared for the next level, but I don't think spending three weeks teaching them how to add and subtract signed numbers would have increased their knowledge base. 

So, think about your first few weeks of school carefully.  What can you do to challenge your students and make the most out of the first few weeks?


druin said...

Wow - Thank you so much for making me think this morning! Great post!

Sue VanHattum said...

Mrs. H, I like that you were able to convince your department to go with this. For me to convince my colleagues, I'd need more details. Can you tell us the speaker's name at that conference? Do you know of any research that suggests students work harder in the first grading period? (I teach college. I wonder if that still holds...)

It does seem plausible, and I, too, am eager to skip weeks of review. I'd rather build the review into the new units. I would love to think more about the ways in which this better serves students.

Kim Hughey said...

@Sue, I can't remember the speaker's name, but I do know she was not an educational expert by any means. Just an ordinary classroom teacher who was basing her opinion off of past observations. It rang true with me as I have observed it in my own classroom.

I think it would ring true in college also. I hate to admit it, but I tend to start my graduate classes strong at the beginning of the semester and then tend lose steam at the end of the semester when I have many things competing for my attention.

Sue VanHattum said...

Well, I may not be able to convince my colleagues, but I'll bring it up in relation to our pre-calc course. I used to feel like that course was impossible to teach well because it had too much material. Now I do just 3 sections from the first chapter - lines (clearly review), circles, and inequalities. And I skip the second chapter of our text, which is on functions. I figure I can help them learn about functions through the other topics we cover.

I'll be skipping review in calculus too, and expecting to review as we go.

Kim Hughey said...

Sue, I'm not sure how I would handle this situation at the college level. In my classes, I generally used warm-ups to review a skill I knew students would be needing that day. It seemed a good way to integrate review as we went along.

I know calculus teachers everywhere complain about their student's algebra skills. Mine sure did. Not sure that algebra review helps them that much. I think we really learn a skill when we begin to apply it in a meaningful context and that seems what calculus is all about to me.

Sue VanHattum said...

Yep, I agree. (I think most of us 'know' that using a skill in a meaningful and/or higher-level application is the best way to really get it, but I guess it's still hard to see that we can skip the review when we know the students aren't 'there' yet.)

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